Hey NCAA & CAA, Let the Kids Play!


Photo Credit: James Madison Athletics


Over the past few months, there has been so much progress for student athlete rights. While we haven’t crossed over the monumental line of considering them employees, the ruling in Alston and the onset of NIL have certainly been steps in the right direction. However, over the past week, we’ve seen some decisions made by NCAA and conference officials that make you wonder whether or not both of the entities are really committed to their mission of advancing the welfare of student athletes. Let’s dive in.


Of the three stories we’ll look at, let’s start with the least detrimental in terms of overall significance and impact. On Monday, Kofi Cockburn, a Preseason All-American for the University of Illinois Men’s Basketball team, was suspended by the NCAA for the first three games of the regular season for selling "institutionally issued apparel and memorabilia" in June. If Cockburn did this today, it would be completely fine under the state of Illinois’ NIL legislation.


However, because Cockburn’s actions were committed in June, it was illegal under NCAA rules at the time because it took place before July 1st. If he broke the rule, then why has there been outrage towards the NCAA? Well, adding a little bit of context would help explain why. Cockburn entered his name into the NBA draft following his last season and didn’t end up withdrawing from it until July 6th. Therefore, it’s obvious that he wasn’t blatantly breaking NCAA rules because he wasn’t fully committed to play college basketball this season at the time.


Nonetheless, the NCAA felt compelled to suspend him anyway. Illinois, ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP poll, opens its season against Jackson State on Nov. 9. Cockburn will miss the opener, as well as games against Arkansas State and at Marquette. He will return for the Fighting Illini's game against Cincinnati on Nov. 22. The NCAA could’ve just let this go and no one would have complained. They didn’t.


While Kofi Cockburn will be missed for the first three games of the Fighting Illini’s campaign, the next two decisions are far more impactful in terms of an impact on a team’s season.


On Wednesday, The NCAA announced they rejected Oklahoma State's appeal and banned the Cowboys from the 2022 men's basketball postseason. Oklahoma State is one of many schools involved in an ongoing corruption scandal, initially with Adidas as well as several college basketball programs associated with the brand but now involving many programs not affiliated with Adidas. However, Oklahoma State is the first of the schools involved to receive a postseason ban from the NCAA as a result.


At an emotional press conference amid a stream of tears falling from his eyes, Cowboys Head Coach Mike Boynton said “I'm disappointed, disgusted, appalled, frustrated, but somewhere in Indianapolis there's a group of people celebrating." "They won. Our players don't deserve and shouldn't have to deal with this."It was a single NCAA violation. One player received $300.”


Oklahoma State also said that they believe it’s the first time a school has received a postseason ban despite no violations in the areas of institutional control, failure to monitor, recruiting, head coach accountability, participation of an ineligible athlete or academic fraud. All because of the actions of one rouge assistant coach, Lamont Evans, who was quickly fired by the school in 2017, the current players and coaches had their goals of competing for championships stripped away.


Now that we have criticized the NCAA enough, let’s shift our attention to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), which operates as a Division 1 FCS conference. In the midst of all the conference realignment going on, CAA member James Madison appears likely to be leaving for the Sun Belt, which is quickly becoming one of the best Group of 5 leagues in the FBS. In what should be a monumental time for the Dukes athletic department, the CAA is throwing some major shade on the parade.


On Wednesday night, news began to spread that the CAA will not allow James Madison’s teams to compete for league championships this year if the school accepts an invitation to join another conference. In that case, automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament would be unavailable for the Dukes in sports including basketball, baseball, and softball.


Although it's possible that JMU teams could qualify for an at-large bid, the CAA isn’t considered a “multi-bid” league on an annual basis that would elicit the Dukes to qualify. This does not apply to the CAA-leading football team, which remains eligible for an automatic bid from the conference because of separate bylaws.


“We have great respect for JMU as a conference,” said CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio. “I’ll be honest. It’s not my job to determine whether it makes sense or doesn’t make sense. it’s my job to make sure the bylaws are enforced the way they’re written.”


All because of a bylaw that has every right to be changed, James Madison’s student athletes and coaches competing in Winter and Spring sports have to fight a tremendous uphill battle to compete for championships. The CAA is not the only conference being raided by bigger leagues either. Imagine the outrage if the Big 12 didn’t allow Oklahoma to play in the Big 12 Championship or if the American blocked Cincinnati? The CAA’s decision might be the worst of these three.


A common thread that runs across all three of these cases is the fact that the student athlete is suffering because of power hungry administrators in college athletics. In Kofi Cockburn’s case, what he did falls completely in line with the current rules of NIL and the NCAA could’ve easily let the case go. In the Oklahoma State Men’s Basketball case, the punishment didn’t fit the crime and punished players who were in middle school when the violations from one rouge assistant occurred. In the James Madison situation, the student athletes had absolutely nothing to do with the school’s decision to improve its athletic profile with the move to the Sun Belt. Yet it’s them that have to suffer by missing three games in Cockburn’s case and postseasons in OSU and JMU’s case.


There is a fine line between upholding the rules and extending your reach, and I think it’s clear what’s occurred in these three situations. A joint statement between the President and AD at JMU put it nicely with “In an era when the industry of college athletics stresses student-athlete welfare, this decision is completely contrary to those ideals.” While they were speaking solely about the CAA’s decision, their sentiments can be applied to all three of these unfortunate rulings. Recently, Major League Baseball has launched the #LetTheKidsPlay campaign pertaining to embracing celebration and emotion in the game. I think that campaign should be stressed to college administrators across the country today. Hey NCAA and CAA, #LetTheKidsPlay!